Donald Trump is a famously paradoxical figure: A nonpolitician who vaulted directly into the nation’s highest political office. A billionaire who seeks to speak for the working class. A media personality at war with the media.
One paradox, however, has been largely overlooked: Trump does not seem personally to be a very religious man, yet his presidential rhetoric is more religious than that of most presidents—even most modern conservative presidents.
The word “piety” does not leap to mind when one thinks about Trump’s leading character traits. Early in his quest for the presidency, he admitted candidly to a group of Iowa evangelicals that he really had never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness. Whatever may be the status of Trump’s personal religiosity, however, his political invocations of religion are frequent and forceful.
“America,” Trump has said many times, “is a nation of believers.” He thus suggests that religion is essential to America’s national identity. This is a bolder proclamation than one would have heard even from conservative presidents—and personally religious men—like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
In his inaugural address, Trump admonished his fellow citizens against “fear.” “We will be protected,” he said, “by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement.” He then added that “most importantly, we are protected by God.” This is a far more striking call to trust in God than is conveyed in the by now formulaic and routine “God bless America.”
In affirming religion so forcefully, Trump is departing from the usual presidential practice. It is common for presidents to emphasize religious liberty, and to celebrate the important contributions of religious believers. Trump goes further by insisting that religious belief is a necessary component of the country’s identity. Presidents typically speak of the power of faith in sustaining people in frightening times. Trump goes further in presenting God as a living force protecting America.
Although Trump’s strongly religious rhetoric is a departure from modern practice, he is nevertheless doing something that the country’s founders would have recognized and approved. At the urging of Congress, George Washington, our first president, set aside a Thursday in November as a day of “service” to “that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Such a day of “service” was appropriate, the proclamation held, because “it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
Washington’s thanksgiving proclamation shows that the founders viewed such affirmations of religion as a duty of the responsible and prudent statesman. Washington himself explained why in his celebrated Farewell Address of 1796. There he reminded his fellow citizens that national well-being depends on a morally virtuous public, which in turn depends on widespread religious belief. “Reason and experience,” he held, indicate that “religious principle” is necessary to maintain “national morality.” Therefore, “the mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish” both “religion and morality” as the “indispensable supports” of the nation’s “political prosperity.”
These reflections explain why Trump, like many previous presidents, would consider it a public duty to encourage belief in God. They do not explain, however, the greater forcefulness with which Trump affirms religious belief and its importance to our country. Personality no doubt plays a part. Trump, after all, does and says practically everything more forcefully than the average politician.
A deeper reason may lie in Trump’s sense—amply confirmed by the evidence around us—that religion is a weaker force in American society than it has been in the past, and so the common good requires a more extraordinary effort to bolster it and to encourage its adherents. Trump’s self-proclaimed mission is to “Make America Great Again.” This undertaking necessarily implies that the country has departed from and must exert itself to return to the beliefs and dispositions on which its past greatness was built.
President Trump is given to laying down, without argument, certain maxims that he thinks are necessary to national well-being. “If you don’t have a border, you don’t have a country” is a prime example. By his religious rhetoric he implies another: “If you don’t have God, you don’t have a country.” Washington would have agreed.